Zinfandel is a curiously underappreciated variety. Forty years after its renaissance I still find myself having to explain to family, friends and acquaintances what it is, let alone just how great it can be. Even among my wine loving associates I am one of the few to list it among my favorite varieties.


So, I have made it part of my mission as a wine writer to sing its praises and have done so for all of the twenty years I have been writing about wine. I recently tasted more examples of what the grape can produce in California. I have a post on the website reviewing some impressive Zinfandel wines I tasted recently. In this post, I turn you on to the pleasures of the 2004 Ridge Vineyards “Lytton Springs” ($33 upon release in 2006).


It is worth noting that although the wine is 79% Zinfandel, 18% Petite Sirah, and 3% Carignane, the label focuses the vineyard. This is a common practice at Ridge, as CEO/Winemaker Paul Draper (who has been at Ridge over fifty years and is recognized as one of the world’s great winemakers) is known for his emphasis on site-specific wines. And Lytton Springs is not just a great zinfandel vineyard; it has been identified as one of the great vineyards in the world. We shouldn’t be surprised it is located in the Dry Creek Valley, which is well known as one of the most hospitable places to grow zinfandel.

Lytton Springs lies just north and west of Healdsburg on benchland and rolling hills. It benefits from foggy mornings followed by by warm, sunny afternoons and cool evenings. This and the not particularly fertile gravelly clay soils ensure that the grapes ripen slowly and achieve a balance that often proves elusive in other zinfandel vineyards.


Ridge had purchased Lytton Springs grapes beginning in 1972; then over the years took opportunities to buy various blocks until by 1995 they owned the complete estate including the winery. Sustainable and organic practices are followed in the vineyard and the winery. For instance, the new winery emphasizes energy conservation, solar energy, and environmentally sustainable construction materials.


In the vineyard, Lytton Springs supports 100 plus-year-old zinfandel vines planted in a “field blend” with petite sirah, carignane, mataro (also known as mourvèdre), and grenache. Draper’s and Ridge Vice President of Winemaking-Lytton Springs John Olney’s respect for the site is evident in the sustainable farming practices and moving it toward organic certification. This respect also means they maintain the field blend and focus on harvesting the grapes at optimal ripeness (too many wineries today harvest overripe grapes) to achieve wines that balance fruit and soil characteristics with manageable tannins and alcohol. Although Zinfandel can reach extremely high alcohol, this 2004 wine came in at an elevated but reasonable 14.5%.


The 2004 Lytton Springs is a beacon of what the zinfandel grape can achieve when grown in the right place and crafted by the right hands. Each variety and each lot were fermented separately with the natural yeast and the wine was allowed to undergo natural malolactic fermentation. After light egg white fining, it was aged on the lees and spent thirteen months in air-dried American oak.

Even at nine years of age the wine was still fresh and vibrant when I tasted it. Its aromas opened with pure brambly blackberry, accented with caramelized wood notes and hints of stone, and finished with a whiff of black pepper. Its beautiful, sweet tasting fruit was delivered in an excellently firm structure and a seamless texture that allowed the wine to slide deftly across my palate. The wine finished full and rich, with still some tannin. It easily could have kept for a few more years. After time in the glass, hints of black licorice emerged in the nose and especially the mouth.


I have been drinking Lytton Springs since the 1970’s (and every vintage since 1990) and the great balance of varietal fruit and terroir this 2004 delivered in an elegant, yet concentrated wine makes this one of my favorite Lytton Springs.


About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.